On a busy street in Madison, Wisconsin, Red Lion Singapore Grill and Japanese Cuisine is in its second month of operation. Jeffrey Cui and his wife Jessica own and operate this brand-new restaurant in what is becoming an up and coming neighborhood.
Located at 515 Cottage Grove Road, Red Lion is in a prime location. The street has some of the old - the VFW, a small carry-out only pizza joint and an abundance of dive bars. It has the feeling of a small town in the middle of the city. However, right across from the Cuis restaurant is one of many recent apartment developments in the area, one of which will eventually hold the new public library. Importantly, the area will soon have new, hungry inhabitants, a boon for the Cui's.
Red Lion is small and quaint. Down a few steps from the main entrance and to the right is the sushi counter, while straight ahead is the kitchen and to the left the small dining area. In the main dining room magnificent photographs of the Singapore skyline cover the wall. If you are lucky enough to sit by the window, you will be just a touch below street level, getting a great view of the street – perfect for watching people and cars.
I sat down with Jeffrey and we chatted about his long history and interest in the food of Singapore. Jeffrey is a 5th generation Singaporean. His parents have ancestors from two different regions in China and their descendants have since lived in the city-state. Like the United States, it is common to find people from different cultures in Singapore. Jeffrey describes Singapore as a mixed culture, with inhabitants of Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and British descent.
Jeffrey developed his love of food from his parents. His father was once a head chef for an upscale hotel, while his mother was a lecturer in a culinary school. Jeffrey has experience in many different types of cuisine – he told me he was the first Singaporean trained Brazilian passador chef in the city-state. He also became a pastry chef, which he attributes to luck. He was a server at a high-end hotel when the pastry chef had to leave for a few days due to a family emergency. Jeffrey assured him that he could fill in, as he had learned how to plate the pastries. When the pastry chef came back, he was so impressed with Jeffrey that he was able to get him a job as his assistant. From then Jeffrey was sponsored to go to culinary school and eventually become a pastry chef.
Unfortunately, Jeffrey tells me that the tropical Singapore climate and lifestyle did not suit him, and he yearned to go somewhere with a cooler climate. He visited a friend in New York City and that inspired him to make the move to the US. He has moved around many times since then, living in New York, New Jersey, West Virginia, Virginia, Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois and now Wisconsin. He said he likes the quiet life in Wisconsin better than Singapore and even New York City. He explained to me that Singapore runs 24 hours a day and that is reflected in the businesses and people’s lifestyles.
In the United States, Jeffrey first started helping as a translator for restaurant owners. He also helped them manage their restaurants. Along with Red Lion, he also co-owns a restaurant in Missouri. Jeffrey and his wife finally moved to Madison in December 2018 after 6 or 7 years of living in Rockford, Illinois. A shooting of a police officer near his home in Rockford made the Cuis reevaluate where they wanted to live, and they decided to give Madison a chance. About five months after the move, the building for Red Lion became available. Jeffrey saw the for-lease sign the first day the space was available and he took the chance to start his own family-run restaurant in Madison.
The most difficult part of opening their restaurant was the amount of work they had to do to the existing space. Jeffrey and his wife had to put in some serious work before they could start operating their restaurant. The exhaust hood was coated in oil and soot. They spent six weeks cleaning the entire restaurant. They tore out the carpets and cleaned the kitchen until it was spotless. Finally, they opened Red Lion on July 28th, 2019.
However, Singaporean cuisine is a rarity in this part of the United States, which Jeffrey said was the second biggest challenge of opening the restaurant. Jeffrey is currently experimenting with different dishes to see what will stick with American tastes, before he puts more Singaporean food on the menu. He said he has focused on the Japanese side of the menu because he knows Americans are already familiar with it. Jeffrey cooks all the food, Japanese and Singaporean, but now has a sushi chef, Jeremy Liu, to make the sushi.
Still, Jeffrey believes that Americans will be open to certain Singaporean dishes, like Singaporean curry.
“I know Americans love curry,” Jeffrey stated.
Like its people, Singaporean food comes from many different cultures. The people borrow food and ideas from different cultures and make it into their own.
“Singapore is a mixed culture country,” Jeffrey explained. “People who live in Singapore, we treat everyone as humans- we don’t put race in our language and we don’t compare cultures. We mix really well together.”
That diversity is reflected in typical Singaporean food, from the curry to Hainanese chicken rice, which Jeffrey touted as one of the signature dishes of Singapore. Currently, Hainanese chicken rice is a rotating special on the menu, as Jeffrey determines what Singaporean dishes can be permanent menu items. As it can be expensive to obtain Singaporean food products, Jeffrey wants to make sure they are compatible with his customers before they are offered a permanent on the menu.
With the help of my partner, I tried some Singaporean dishes and sushi specialties at Red Lion. During our interview, Jeffrey said that he has tried to tone down the spice levels for Americans for some of the Singaporean dishes, but that he offers some sambal chili paste with dried shrimp to patrons who are up for the challenge. I was able to try some of this paste with the Singapore chicken curry that I ordered, which was the special of the day.
The Singapore curry, which is more of the consistency of a soup than Indian curry, is fragrant and delicious. The chicken is very tender and falls apart and the potatoes give the dish a nice hearty touch, perfect for a chilly day in Wisconsin. It is served with rice and interestingly, a small portion of a baguette, which Jeffrey encouraged us to dip in the broth. It is a wonderful combination of eastern and western practices – it is both a curry with rice and a soup with bread for dipping. The chili paste that he gives us on the side is certainly spicy, and for those who can’t get enough of hot sauce, this is a wonderful item to try. He advised us to mix it into the rice, and it packs a punch. The dried shrimp mixed in gives the dish a deeper flavor profile, and is a unique and savory flavor for those who are open to complex tastes.
We also tried the pork gyoza. They are offered as steamed or fried. I asked Jeffrey which he prefers, and he offered to give us half steamed, half fried. The dumplings were absolutely delicious. I preferred the steamed dumplings, as they were juicy to bite into. The fried dumplings were lightly fried and also very tasty. They came with a sesame soy dipping sauce, which enhanced all the flavors in the dumplings.
After that, we indulged in two signature sushi rolls. The chef presented both beautifully. The Red Lion roll has a very rich flavor – it contains cream cheese, avocado, lobster tempura and is topped with tuna and is wrapped in soy paper with eel sauce and spicy mayo. We also tried the Sentosa roll (named after the Singaporean island), which is exceptional. The roll contains crab, avocado, spicy salmon, and is wrapped in crab meat, topped with some crunch and spicy mayo. This roll is very decadent and is perfect for those who love crab.
We left Red Lion feeling extremely satisfied. The combination of food items is unique and different from other restaurants in the area. From talking with Jeffrey, this seems to be the theme of Singaporean cuisine – a mixture from many different cultures to form a delicious fusion.
At the end of the interview, I asked Jeffrey if there is anything that he wanted Americans to know about Singapore. He said, “Singapore is clean and beautiful.” Jeffrey has taken these high standards of Singaporean life and cuisine and transferred them to his restaurant. Although Singaporean cuisine may be new to the area, a food from one mixed culture to another will surely have something for everyone.
The Red Lion Restaurant
515 Cottage Grove Rd.
Madison, WI 53716
Call Red Lion Singapore Grill by phone at 608-467-3018
About the Author:
Sarah Kuelbs is a UW-Madison School of Journalism graduate and food writer based in Madison, WI.